Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Brief History of how Randy Hopper Lost Touch with his District

The big story in the paper today is that state senator Randy Hopper has hired  an out-of-state campaign operative to fight allegations that he doesn't live in his district, as well as to manage the recall campaign against him. This was probably counterproductive, in so far as it feeds into one of the long-broiling criticisms of Hopper: namely, that he's become too cool for school.

The thing(s) about the Hopper residency issue debacle is that isn't only that it's happening at a time when he's being recalled for unrelated reasons, but primarily because it's happening only after he's been in office for about two years. Why is that a big deal?

By all accounts, Hopper is really a splendid retail politician. He charmed the pants off a ton of people in his district (and apparently a few staffers in Madison, literally -- rimshot!). In fact, the word used to describe Hopper that I heard most frequently was "smooth." He campaigned as a reasonable, common-sense moderate in front of a good deal of locals who, not surprisingly, thought he would govern that way.

He may have only won by 187 votes, but he did so during 2008, a year that lesser Republican campaigns and candidates would have gotten steamrolled.

Needless to say, folks were a bit disheartened when he lurched hard right immediately upon taking the oath of office. During Hopper's first year in the Senate many folks began to get the impression that he enjoyed being a politician, and not necessarily "the representing his constituents part," a lot. Perhaps too much. So by the end of his first year Hopper had developed the reputation as someone who had gone Hollywood, er, Madison: he enjoyed the perks of office and was content with just being told what to do by the leadership.

At the same time it was clear the GOP leadership saw him as a potential rising start. Even as a freshman legislator he was given a leadership role on the partisan sideshow known as the Wisconsin Jobs NOW Task Force, a traveling series of listening sessions that concluded its business with a report that "coincidentally" (wink, wink; nudge, nudge) parroted the recommendations advocated by the local chapter of the Koch Brothers'-funded Americans for Prosperity. Hopper was proving to be a good soldier in Madison, and rumors started to circulate that Hopper was being groomed to inherit Rep. Tom Petri's congressional seat (or even something bigger).

Rumors of Hopper's issues back home really started to make the rounds among Oshkosh's water cooler in the fall of last year. By the time 2011 started, it was something of a shibboleth among people who kept up with public affairs, but weren't eager to appear as gossips. When Hopper earned an appointment to the powerful Joint Finance Committee in November, many people were incensed that Hopper was being rewarded with a prime seat at the cool kids table despite his lack of seniority and extracurricular issues.

Hopper's base has always been in Fond du Lac County, where he, um, resides. That portion of his district is much more conservative than the Winnebago county segment (FdL Co. voted for Scott Walker with a whopping 65% of the vote in 2010). Fondy is home to a good deal of union households who have jobs working for Mercury Marine, which explored relocation to Oklahoma (a so-called "right to work" state) in 2009. At the eleventh hour Mercury canceled the move after receiving generous tax incentive packages from state and local governments, as well as significant concessions from the union. The move would have cost Fondy at least 1850 jobs, in addition to many ancillary jobs from suppliers and so forth, and would have essentially decimated the city.

But Mercury didn't move and Hopper was visible in the negotiations that kept them here. A victory, right? Not quite. Last March Mercury started paying out bonuses to salaried employees, a move that did not sit well with hourly workers. Many of these folks are classic Reagan Democrats who have probably been voting Republican for years and may now realize that that they're damned if they do and damned if they don't.

If perception is reality in politics, then the pervading perception of Hopper is that he's "gone native" during his brief time in Madison. For some elected officials it takes years, even decades, to earn this reputation, but Hopper fell into it so quickly that it's hard to both miss and defend. None of these issues by themselves are exactly minor -- the relationship with a Madison staffer/lobbyist, the residency questions, the out-of-state operative hires -- but they all come together to form a narrative of a fundamental disconnect between Hopper and his district, and that's before anyone mentions that he's been in unflinching lockstep with Scott Walker since January.

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